The Arizona Wildcats saw their season end in the Super Regionals five consecutive seasons.
They were one win away from making it to the Women’s College World Series twice in three years — losing to Auburn in 2016 and Baylor in 2017, then getting swept by UCLA in 2018 — before beating Ole Miss on Saturday to punch a ticket to Oklahoma City.
It comes down to team chemistry — something that UA players and coach Mike Candrea have been talking about for months now.
“The past couple years that I’ve been here, we just haven’t meshed,” junior catcher Dejah Mulipola said. “And I think this year everyone truly bought into what coach was selling. Underclassmen, upperclassmen, bench players, starters, I think we truly just bought in and we worked as a unit. Our motto this year is, ‘One team, one heartbeat,’ and it definitely showed on the field, which is why we finally broke the curse and we’re going to where we should be.”
The newfound chemistry could be traced to a team-building exercise Candrea introduced.
In September, Candrea had his team complete “The Program” — a Navy SEALs training program that builds personal development, leadership development and team building through shared adversity.
“And it really kind of identified a few things for us,” Candrea said. “One was leaders, putting them in leadership positions. But I think the other thing was paying attention to details.”
Those details are small gestures that most people wouldn’t notice, Candrea said, but has paid dividends for the team.
When the Wildcats line up their gloves, they’re all straight. During practice, the team gets in formation and does five jumping jacks.
“Nothing more than just a reminder of that experience,” Candrea said. “And I really think that experience really set off in the right direction.”
But it could also he the hardships the Wildcats have faced the last few years. Besides the Super Regional losses, Arizona has persevered through multiple injuries.
Take outfielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza. On the first day of fall practice in 2015, she tore her ACL and was forced to take a medical redshirt. In 2017, she tore her other ACL two days before the postseason and was out of the lineup when Baylor rallied to beat Arizona in a winner-take-all Super Regional game.
Making the WCWS means that much more to her.
“I’ve had my ups and downs and I think a big part of me coming back has been my teammates and my coaches and just the support system I have,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “So being able to come on the field and perform for them, it was just being able to give back to what they’ve done for me.”
Then there’s Reyna Carranco. She was hit in the face by a pitch last season, resulting in a broken nose, facial fracture and concussion. This year, she took a pitch to her hands, breaking her left hand and right thumb late in the season. She recovered enough from her most recent injuries to come back to the team as a designated player.
And those are just the big ones. Rylee Pierce suffered a bruised wrist earlier this season. For every injury that players acknowledge, there are countless more the team has trudged through.
“We’ve had some rough years, but I think this year we’ve definitely come together,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “We’ve definitely worked together as a team. We’ve been through it all and we’ve been there for each other through the whole thing and it’s just incredible to see the team that we are.”
There doesn’t seem to be any selfishness. During press conferences since Carranco’s return, the junior gushed about how proud she was of her second-base replacement Hanah Bowen.
That support system has been key in building the team chemistry to a years-long high — and a big part of the UA’s return to Oklahoma City.
“I think just team chemistry and just trusting one another that if one of us can’t get the job done, then someone else is right there behind us to pick each other up,” pitcher Alyssa Denham said. “And just the confidence that the coaches show to us and that we have in the coaches and just really working together and being strong for each other.”